An influential group of MSPs has called for more support for GPs in helping significant numbers of older people who make appointments at surgeries simply because they are lonely and have no one to talk to.
The Scottish Parliament’s equal opportunities committee this month said that GPs should be able to refer patients experiencing loneliness and isolation to a ‘link worker’ to provide social prescribing and help them integrate into their communities and meet new friends.
These link workers – who could be based in GP practices – would provide patients with ideas for joining leisure clubs or starting new social activities to help them out of their homes, the committee argues. They can also help with information on child support and other benefits.
Committee convenor Margaret McCulloch, MSP for Central Scotland, said that tackling loneliness among older people may reduce rates of dementia and malnutrition.
Link worker schemes already exist in parts of Scotland but the committee recommends they should be available across the country.
This recommendation is one of 16 in an equal opportunities committee report calling on the Scottish Government to prioritise loneliness and isolation alongside issues such as poverty and poor housing.
The report states: ‘Evidence has pointed to isolation and loneliness increasing pressures on the health service, with people reporting to GP surgeries and accident and emergency departments when the root cause was perceived to be loneliness.’
The report highlights work by a partnership of 100 practices called GPs at the Deep End, which serve patients in socio-economically deprived areas and runs a project that sees link workers based in practices.
It says: ‘The importance of link workers was emphasised by a range of witnesses, based within GP practices, health services or the community. We recommend that the Scottish Government includes link worker systems in any national strategy development.’
The RCGP backs plans for link working. It has piloted this as part of its Improving Links in Primary Care initiative.
Deputy chair for policy Dr Elaine McNaughton said: ‘Practitioners recorded that approximately 15% of consultations identified a patient with a support need who could potentially benefit from local resources.’
Most practices in the pilot used a link worker to ease the burden on GPs giving out information themselves, said Dr McNaughton.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: ’The committee’s considerations are wide ranging and we will consider them fully before responding to the report’s recommendations. We will ensure its findings are included in our Fairer Scotland discussion, which calls of people with direct experience of exclusion to put forward their views and help shape the way we tackle this issue in the future.’